What will your company teach the world? How to leverage learning for business growth

Philosopher John Dewey famously said, “learning is growth”. While he was referring to personal growth, the famous proclamation can also be applied to business growth. How does learning help companies grow exponentially? When you think about it, companies don’t really sell products and services – they sell outcomes in the shape of insights, access to information, and learning, sometimes promised as a form of “improvement”. That’s why the best products and services are designed with learning in mind.

Consider the virality of the Tasty video series. Tasty’s parent brand is BuzzFeed, an internet media company. Tasty teaches and inspires people to cook recipes in minute-long “how-to” videos. These videos, that the New York Times calls “food porn” are the result of the company learning how to optimize, down to a formula, what they set out to teach the world – how to make great food fast and easy. Their Youtube channel boasts 14M subscribers. In fact, YouTube videos with the words “how to” in the title gathered over a billion hours of viewing time last year. This demand for informational content led to the company investing $20M in educational videos as well as hosting a EduCon conference and NextUp learning camp. YouTube didn’t set out to be an education company – they originally set out to be a dating site – and neither did BuzzFeed but they are both learning organizations – they leverage learning for business growth.

Internally, learning helps companies grow through individual and organizational development and innovation. Externally, companies grow when they share their learning, through what they choose to teach the world. In an ideal company culture, internal learning feeds and inspires external teaching. When a company’s internal learning processes and practices are prioritized and strategically aligned with what they plan to teach their stakeholders through their products, services, brand, and content, learning becomes a powerful and sustainable growth strategy.

Building icon by  IconfactoryTeam , UA from the Noun Project

Building icon by IconfactoryTeam, UA from the Noun Project

Internal learning

The best place to find the highest value insights is right inside your business, where your company’s value is connected to the people and the processes that work to improve it.

A company has knowledge within its team, its documentation, its written and unwritten processes, and all the cultural elements and interactions that make it up. A company’s knowledge can be known – the expertise accessed and shared regularly – or it can be unknown – untapped or tacit. 90% of knowledge is held in employees’ minds or embedded in routines, processes, practices, and norms (Curtis, 2017). Rest assured this “hidden knowledge” can be made explicit. It can be surfaced for product roadmapping, it can be mapped into a service’s methodology or curriculum, and it mobilized for core messaging and content strategy. Being aware of where the greatest nuggets of learning and insight come from within an organization allows for processes to be put in place to ensure that the life-source of new learning flows steadily. Surfacing knowledge also helps prevent organizational loss of knowledge, such as when a highly knowledgeable or experienced employee leaves the company or retires. Resilient companies are lifelong learners.

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To excavate a company’s hidden knowledge, act as an ethnographer. Research the customs, practices, and norms within the ecosystem of the organization. Ask how the people within the organization learn. How do they get creative? How do they innovate? How do they collaborate? Where do good ideas come from? The answers to these questions are likely the source of authentic educational value that an organization can offer the world.

External teaching

Those who will be able to leverage the power of learning for growth will be the leaders of this internet-based knowledge economy.

An educational strategy is a organization-wide vision for teaching and learning and it is key to defensibility. The ability to continue learning and growing internally so that stakeholders can too is a surefire way to stay relevant is this personal-growth obsessed age. After all, in this connected world industries are blending. Education companies and institutions are competing with Youtube, Netflix, and any other company sharing exclusive knowledge for the attention of adults and youth because they are all offering consumable and usable information.

There are so many disparate strategic reasons to leverage educational content:

  1. a newly developed product contains  advanced technology, like AI or Blockchain, which needs socializing in the market;

  2. A company’s mission is to create a social or environmental impact that needs to be advocated for;

  3. A company has a considerable amount of competition and needs to find a way to stand out; or,

  4. as simple as needing to build a community around a solution.

Engaging in a reciprocal educational relationship with stakeholders, where companies learn from and teach their stakeholders, is the first step to doing all of the above.

Whether a company provides a product or a service, learning is a major source of holistic value for stakeholders and of opportunity for business. When companies choose to think of learning as-a-service, the quality of the products, services and content they produce can be determined by its educational value. Within this paradigm, companies that are the best teachers, will create the highest value apps, experiences, and content.

Stop marketing and start teaching

Forward-thinking companies won’t stop there. “Value added content” is not just about high-quality assets here and there, it’s about a holistic strategy – one that asks, what will our company teach the world? This is where brand meets impact strategy, enabling all stakeholders to share in a company’s journey and to grow along side it. When a company shares its learning journey it discloses a non-traditional amount of insider-information and vulnerability by sharing missteps. This brings stakeholders inside the company and makes them feel like they are a part of it. When stakeholders join a company on their learning journey they can build a relationship based on mutual trust and mutual support. Learning is a growth strategy because at its core it is a long-term relationship strategy.

So, what should a company teach the world?

Everything it knows. When we stop sharing, the cycle of learning and teaching slows down, and we stop innovating. In this knowledge economy, ‘knowledge is power’ takes on a whole new meaning. Because what really confers power is not hoarding knowledge but releasing it.

Committing to a cycle of internal learning and external teaching, results in an ever-replenishing source of knowledge. Subscribing to this approach – to learning as a growth strategy – allows us to realize that scarcity is an illusion. The anxiety that can come from sharing one’s best ideas and insights dissipates. In its place is a never-ending source of ideas and insights for growth and improvement. The benefits to the company’s culture can be equally innumerable.

The ability to teach, share or spread exclusive and authentically sourced knowledge from your team and company stakeholders is a powerful differentiator that no organization can afford to ignore. Companies that do not meet the consumer expectation and demand for learning will fall behind. Companies that prioritize teaching their stakeholders will build stronger bonds and steal the limelight. The great success stories of the future will be the companies that use learning as a growth strategy – learning organizations. We can already think of a few learning organizations that are on to this fact. Consider Hubspot’s investment in educational content they call “resources”, which ranges from blog content, to courses, to a massive lead generation library of guides, templates, ebooks, and more.

 
Screen Shot 2019-05-08

Screen Shot 2019-05-08

What Hubspot gets that many companies miss is that this isn’t just about lead generation. Their educational strategy, which targets stakeholders at many stages of their professional journey, creates a reliance and builds a trust with the company based on its expertise and support. As an individual grows in their role, they know they will be able to go back to Hubspot to help them learn or at least fake it ‘til they make it. Hubspot is a learning organization – they excavate and surface knowledge and insights to share with their stakeholders. Hubspot knows its customers well, understanding their needs and serving them with products and services learning they need to get their jobs done.

Reference
Mary B. Curtis, Eileen Z. Taylor, (2018) "Developmental mentoring, affective organizational commitment, and knowledge sharing in public accounting firms", Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 22 Issue: 1, pp.142-161, https://doi.org/10.1108/JKM-03-2017-0097.

Pure & Applied helps companies become learning organizations, leveraging learning as a growth strategy and establishing long-term relationship dynamics with stakeholders.

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Roxanne Desforges